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Language Barrier

My husband and I are going to be in Europe this winter and I was wondering how diffucult it was to order food in restaurants without knowing the langauge? We will be in Paris, Munich, and Rome. I plan to learn mannerism words in all three languages but should I be worried about eating?

Posted by
5787 posts

In Munich, English is likely to get you quite far. Most Germans under 60 or so speak it to some degree. In Paris and Rome it will be trickier if you stray off the tourist restaurant path, but usually the staff know a little English in the places most tourists end up.

Worrying won't help. Besides, you aren't going to starve - it will all be overpriced in Rome and Paris, but they will bring you something to eat.

Posted by
18610 posts

There is a small book - I have seen it at several online bookstores like Amazon for about $10, called Marling's Menu Master. It is available in German, French, Italian, and other languages, and explains menu items. Just the thing to take along to read on the plane.

Posted by
11464 posts

I don't care if you know a little french or not,, I do, and I still need and use a menu translator sometimes ,, since many things do not translate literally.. For instance,, even in english,, who has ever eaten a "pig in a blanket"( sausage roll) .

Yes, learn the words for chicken , beef and pork, but more importantly,, ( if you are a picky eater) you might want to know the words for heart , liver, tongue, and sweetbreads.. since recogizing the word beef on a menu may still get you something you didn't count on eating..LOL
Now, there are many restuarants in the touristy areas that have menus that are already in english, or staff can assist.. its still helpful to have a menu translater though because if the place is busy the waiter may not have time to help you too much.

The best advise is to just be open to trying different foods ..

Posted by
3580 posts

And be sure you can recognize the names of foods you are allergic to. In my case it is mussels.

Posted by
31733 posts


You shouldn't have any problems ordering in any of those cities, as most Servers are able to speak English to some degree (be sure to speak slowly and clearly, avoiding "slang").

However, it would probably be a good idea to read the appropriate sections of Rick's Europe Through The Back Door so that you're aware of the "differences" in restaurant practises in the different countries. A few examples:

In Paris restaurants are required by law to provide free tap water if requested. No need to order expensive bottled water unless you want it. Menus are often just written on a blackboard outside the restaurant - don't expect a printed menu in all locations. If you're not sure what the items are, ASK!

In Rome (and other places in Italy), meals come in courses - Antipasti, Primi Piatti and Secondi (along with wine, water, or whatever). If you order the "full meal deal" for two people, it will get expensive real quick!

As I recall, Rick's handy French/German/Italian Phrasebook contains information on ordering meals, and the local words for different foods.

When you're ready for the bill (not sure about the spelling):

Paris - l'addition, sil vous plait

Munich - Rechnung, Bitte

Rome - Il Conto, per favore

Regarding gratuities, there are other posts here on the subject. If you want further details, do a search.

Good luck and happy travels!

Posted by
9335 posts

The Rick Steve's German/Italian/French phrasebook does have a lot of information regarding food and ordering. It came in very handy when I was in Germany and France, and I assume it works great in Italy too. I would suggest not limiting yourself to restaurants that have English menus. They can be more expensive because they cater to tourists and the food probably isn't as good.

Posted by
689 posts

In Germany it seemed like every place we ate (most were Rick's recommendations) had english translations on the menu. Waiters spoke english to us after hearing us speak english among ourselves. Italian menus were easy for me to read, but maybe because I have Italian cookbooks. But so many of the dishes just seem easy to figure out.

In Paris, unless you stick to really touristy sites, it would be good to have a menu translator, or at least a guidebook with some food words. If you aren't too fussy you can memorize the proteins before you go, or look them up in your guide, and just go on that (my husband does that--he just needs to know if it's pork or beef or whatever, and he loves being surprised with the preparation). If you ARE fussy and have to know exactly what's in the sauce and what comes on the side bring a menu phrase book. Just please don't be the American tourist who badgers the poor waiter with questions in english about exactly how a dish is prepared.

Food is one of the main reasons we travel to France and one year I made flashcards, with hundreds of menu/food words that I got from a menu phrase book. It worked great! I was hardly ever stumped.

Posted by
689 posts

Oh and in France it's a law that the menu be posted on a restaurant's window. Before I memorized the flash cards, we used to go to restaurants that looked like dinner possibilities, look at the menu on the window when they were still closed, and use our menu phrase book to translate everything. Then when we actually sat down for dinner we seemed like we knew what we were doing, without having to flip through the guide, lol.

Posted by
15358 posts

Learn the words for ALL the meats. Horse meat has become a fashion in France.

Posted by
337 posts

"Oh and in France it's a law that the menu be posted on a restaurant's window."

Germany has a similar regulation (PAngV §7(2)).

Posted by
11464 posts

Chani, Horsemeat has always been eaten in France, but now MUCH less so,, it is also expensive and considered more of a specialty item, whereas years ago it was considered a cheaper meat. The average tourist is no more likely to " accidently " eat horse then they are hair,, since the words are simlar,, LOL,, really , don't worry about it.. have some lovely raw oysters instead..

Most tourists will get no where near horsemeat,, but are far more likely to eat some organs they may not normally consume at home, ris de veau is quite popular as is andioullet( think I spelt that wrong, but trust me I know it when I see it on the menu,,LOL)look those up!! LOL

I also think that always assuming you can count on a waiter to translate a menu for you ( assuming you don't go into a touristy english menu type place) is a bit presumptious,, I worked in restaurants, and yes, its nice to HELP with an occaisonal word or cooking term, but most servers do not have all day to translate the whole menu.

PS.. Asking for a lot of menu substitutions is frowned on,, ie: " may we have the sauce without the onions " etc. Sure ask you can have potatoes instead of rice etc., but don't push your luck.

PS Horsemeat is not repulsive btw. tastes like a weird steak.

Posted by
18610 posts

I really have to agree with Pat - "not everyone speaks English". While in small language groups (Dutch, Danish, Swedish), almost 90% of the people speak English, of the 90% of the people on the continent who are in one of the four major language groups (DE, FR, IT, and ES), only about one in three can speak English. (In Germany, over 50% speak English, but it is only 34% and 29% respectively in France and Italy).

By the way, this isn't just an opinion based on just my experience. I base this on official European Union statistics quoted on their website.

Posted by
875 posts

It was our experience in Paris that most everyone did speak English and was willing to do so if we first made a polite effort to speak a little French. Out in the smaller villages in France we had more difficulty with the language barrier but nothing that couldn't be overcome.
It does help to familiarize yourself with the French words for menu items, numbers, etc.

Bon appetit!

Posted by
448 posts

I'll get back to this food language question later...because for now i have to go to the market for fish for supper..But just wanted to mention that in France (the only country i claim to "know" despite having visited Germany and Italy) won't have to worry about finding horse on the menu though "we" do eat it , nothing new, and hardly weird..just less fat and not served to pony fans....Last week in Paris i ate with friends from Seattle at a tiny restaurant in the Marais..definetly "home cooking"...chalkboard menu and no "dreaded subtitles" in English ( i know that many of you warn against multi-lingual menus")..the chef/owner spoke french, the barman sort of english..and food is always pretty easy for me to translate anyhow...Sorry, just rambling..As someone previously mentioned, just learn how to say chicken in 3 languages and you won't starve..and of course you'll get better service with the hello and thankyou's...

Posted by
113 posts

In the cities everybody speaks English - and even in Paris these days, they are usually WILLING to speak English. If you eat in out-of-the-way cafes (I would!) and want to order something besides the standard fare, you might like to have a small phrase book w/ menu translations - but it's not necessary. Lots of restaurants in the tourist areas will even have English menus.

Posted by
11464 posts

Regina, I did not mean horsemeat is weird,, but that the taste is like " weird steak" meaning somewhat like beef( likethe dark meat on chicken and rabbit can be considered similar) .

And Rebecca you are just plain wrong. Not "everyone speaks english",, maybe it just seemed like that to you as you hit the tourist highlights of Paris..
Many younger( under 40) folks do speak some english,, but the presumption that "everyone" speaks english is rather ....
Does everyone in California speak Spanish?
Does everyone in Canada speak French?

Posted by
123 posts

Thank you all so much! We are not typically picky eaters and I look at everything as an adventure and even if its horrible its a good story later. But I would like to really enjoy the food culture of each place because I consider myself a foodie and love good food.

Posted by
2436 posts

Laura, I just got back from Germany, which was the first place I've been where a minority of people spoke English (we stayed in a small town). I was surprised at how hard it was to order meals. I had not worried about it because my son who took a lot of Germany and speaks pretty well, was with us, and I liked the idea of being adventurous. However, I found that I didn't like the idea of paying money for a meal I might not enjoy that month. Also, my son did not know a lot of the menu items, although he was of some help. Even if you have a waiter/waitress who speaks some English, you don't want to make them read the whole menu to you. Next trip, I will definitely make an effort to learn some of the basic menu items in the language and jot them down in a notebook.

Posted by
18610 posts

OK, Laura, a quick course on German cuisine.

German cuisine is based more on pork than on beef. It tends to be economical and tasty. A very common item on German menus, and often one of the least expensive, is Schnitzel, a thin cut of pork, usually from the "top round", which, in this country is only made into ham. The two most commom forms of Schnitzel are Jägerschnitzel (pr. Yea'-ger-schnit-zel), in a brown, mushroom gravy, and my favorite, Zigeunerschnitzel (Tsik oy ner schnit zel), in a tomato based sauce of sweet peppers and onion, sometimes a little spicey (pikant), but usually not too hot.

Another pork dish is Lendchen or pork tenderloin.

A common accompaniment is Spätzel, a little dough dumpling cooked in hot water or broth. Another accompaniment is Pom Fritz (French Fries), usually a lot better than MacDonalds.

German dishes usually come with a vegetable (Gemüse, often broccoli) or a gemischte Salat, a mixed salad, usually more than just lettuce - corn, marinated cucumbers, cole slaw, tomatoes.

And, of course, there is always Würst (sausage). Try Bratwürst or (particularly in Munich) Weiswürst.

Posted by
8427 posts

I have found some little books, called "Just enough German" Just enough Turkish", etc. to be helpful when I have gone to other countries. They not only have great phonetic pronunciations, but also helpful questions for you to show the native speaker (where is the train station) and answers for them to point out (left then straight) I was so happy to have learned how to order meals in Turkish and to ask, where is the bathroom. I also have the Spanish book.

As to who speaks English in Germany. It used to be required to have 2 years of English as a minimum, usually 5th & 6th grade, though many students would take 4-8 years of it. About 12 years ago, they began teaching in the 3rd grade, so everyone gets a min. of 4 years. Of course, once you are out of school, if you don't ever use a language, you lose it. You will have a better chance in bigger cities and younger people, though of course this isn't always the case.

If you don't learn any other phrase, at least learn how to say "excuse me, do you speak English" in the language of the country you are in. For people who don't speak it every day, it can really throw a person off to just start speaking in English. It implies that you "expect" them to know it. I do know a lot of Germans who, when this happens, just refuse to speak English. Imagine if you will, being in your hometown and someone walked up to you and just started speaking in German. You'd be thinking, why does this person think I know German? But if they asked you first, in English, you might be inclined to struggle along with it and be helpful if you could.

In smaller countries, like Denmark, Belgium, etc. the TV movies are usually just with sub-titles, so the population hears English ALL the time. This is why more of the population speaks it. Also, in Sweden for example, they have 12 years of English in school.

Sorry so long. :-)